Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Fall 2008

Women’s Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority. Shareen Hassim. University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. 355 pp.

Shireen Hassim analyzes women’s political participation in South Africa during a dramatic period of that country’s history in Women’s Organization and Democracy in South Africa. Relying on extensive archival research, secondary sources, interviews and participant-observation, Hassim focuses on women’s organizations and the emergence of the women’s movement from approximately 1980-1999. She not only addresses debates about the relationship between women’s struggles and broader political struggles, but also the relationship between the contesting ideologies of feminism and nationalism.

The book’s structure follows the emergence of the women’s movement, and women’s organizations with the women’s movement, as an important social movement in South Africa. She specifically focuses on organizations such as the African National Congress’ (ANC) Women’s League, the Natal Organization of Women (NOW), the United Women’s Organization (UWO), and the Women’s National Coalition (WNC). Hassim provides an excellent discussion of her use of the terms “women’s movement” and “women’s organization” in the context of her research, as well as larger academic debates. An important and recurring theme in her work is the acknowledgment that women frame their actions in terms of a wide range of identities, including class, race, and geographic location. Hassim recognizes the delicate balance between oversimplifying the concept of “women’s movements” and deconstructing their nuances to the point of denying the potential for such solidarity to exist.

Hassim relies on Maxine Molyneux’s conception of autonomy to frame her discussion of the emergence and challenges of the South Africa women’s movement. Molyneux argues that successful women’s organizations must constantly hold a strong bargaining position if they are not to be co-opted by larger movements (i.e. nationalism) and external political environments have to be conducive to the achievement of feminist goals, in order for women’s movements to succeed. She also provides three categories of analysis of autonomy, which Hassim, in turn, applies to her case study of South Africa: “the nature and extent of autonomy of women’s organizations, their internal capacity to direct goals and strategies, and the nature of the external political environment within which women’s organizations were located” (p. 12).

With regard to these three categories, Hassim does an excellent job addressing them across her analysis in the subsequent seven chapters of the book. She argues while some women’s organizations pursued forms of associational autonomy, many were increasingly unable to find a balance between the demands of the women’s movement and anti-apartheid movement. Throughout the book, and specifically in chapter one, she questions the opportunities and costs of nationalism for the women’s movement. She credits the opportunity for participation in the nationalism liberation struggle for enabling activist women to “link race, class, and gender oppression and to universalize the demand for gender equality within the vision of national liberation” (21). The increasing adoption of the women’s movement by the nationalism movement, however, also reveals questions about “whether and in what ways the project of national liberation and that of women’s liberation were congruent” (p. 21).

In addition, Hassim raises an interesting discussion about the relationship among inequality, identity, and women’s interests with women’s movements. More than inequality between black and white women, she argues women’s interests in the South Africa women’s movement “were articulated in far more complex ways, with no direct correlation between racial identity and political identity” (p. 44). Nor do first world and third world concepts of “gender rights” and “gender needs” provide adequate explanation for Hassim’s case study. Rather, she suggests broader struggles against oppression (anti-apartheid movement) can trigger multiple aspects of women’s identities for mobilization. On the other hand, she also uses chapter four to demonstrate the link between “rights-based” struggles and substantive equality. For Hassim, the gender politics of South Africa provides an example of ways in which “rights-based actions can facilitate and enhance struggles to meet needs” (p. 45).

In concluding her discussion of the South Africa women’s movement, Hassim places the women’s organizations in her analysis on a continuum of autonomy, ranging from weak and directed collective action to strong, independent action. The ANC Women’s League and Federation of Transvaal Women are placed on the directed end of the continuum, while the UWO and WNC are classified as stronger and more independent (p. 249). Part of her conclusion also consists of assessing the current shape of the women’s movement in three distinct arenas: “policy advocacy at the national level, an intermediary arena of networks and coalitions, and grass-roots level of community based women’s organizations” (p. 254). Hassim acknowledges that there has been a decline in women’s effectiveness in Parliament (although not unusual and points to US as similar case) and strong women’s organizations are the key to revival of the women’s movement influence.

Moreover, she calls for a reinstatement of “real politics” into democracy discourse and a “debate about who articulates needs and how they become integrated into policy choices” (p. 265). Hassim’s work certainly provides a starting point for such a debate. She uses a “detailed historiography of South Africa women’s movement” to engage theoretical debates between feminism and nationalism and practical discussions of struggle for social policy change (p. 246). Her book would be excellent for use in women’s studies, history, political science, or sociology classrooms, particularly for those interested in social movements and political mobilization.

Erika N. Cornelius
Purdue University